In a new art installation, artist David Bowen gave plants a new defense against human tyranny: a knife wielding robotic arm. In order to grant a humble philodendron the power of manslaughter, he utilized the plant's natural ability to sense information and communicate with others.
While it may not look like it on the outside, plants are able to communicate with one another using a couple different methods, chief among them being volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and electrical signals.
VOCs are gaseous compounds that can be found in many man-made products, including paint, cleaning supplies, glue and even printers. Plants release VOCs to attract pollinators, deter predators and signal other plants. These signals often act as a warning for other plants, letting them activate their defense mechanisms. Researchers can use VOCs to regulate photosynthesis and other metabolic processes, improving plant growth and health in the process.
The robot arm, however, is not controlled by VOCs. Instead, it is regulated by the electrical signals coursing through the plant’s leaves. These signals transmit information about the environment around it and aid in everyday life. They can be sent to other plants they’re in contact with, including plants of other species.
Using these electrical signals, we can translate and even communicate with plants. While it’s not a full blown conversation, researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore were able to communicate with a venus fly trap using electrodes. This electrode allowed researchers to study how plants responded to their environments and transmit signals to cue the plant to open or close its leaves.
These same signals allow Bowen’s philodendron to control its robot arm and machete. Electrodes stuck to the leaves pick up on electrical signals, which are then interpreted by a software program and translated into commands for the robot arm. While the plant is not deliberately piloting the robot arm, and you couldn’t take it to court for manslaughter, it is a charismatic example of the complex behavior plants exhibit behind the scenes.